Research History (and Building Worlds and Characters)

Research History (and Building Worlds and Characters)

Perhaps it’s weird lumping these together, but whatever. I’m weird. Sue me. (Actually, don’t. I’m poor. It’s not worth it.) And there is a point. Whether you’re working on historical fiction, an epic fantasy, or even the next big space opera, if it takes place on our planet or on a planet entirely your own, history will always play a role, however small.


This will be more relevant to anyone writing historical fiction or fiction that is heavily inspired by history, but if you’re creating a world from scratch, it doesn’t hurt to create parallels and brush up on the ways in which we Earthlings have evolved (and not evolved).

Topic Time:

If you’re just diving in, your first step is choosing a topic. Make a list about what interests you. Odds are you aren’t the only weirdo out there fascinated by this.

  1. Get personal: Characters are what make our novels really sing, so pay close attention to the people that shape history and are most affected by it.
  2. Events: This can be literally anything. Hiroshima. The first man on the moon. The invention of mascara. Whatever the event, there’s always a story behind it and fascinating characters to discover.
  3. A specific year or era: Do you love their clothes? Are you intrigued by the social or religious norms of the time? Was something invented then that you think is really cool?

Anything you personally want to know more about has story potential if you’re open to finding it.

Get Your Read On:

Obvious maybe, but once you’ve chosen your topic it’s book-cracking time. READ. Then read some more. Now do it again, and be sure to take notes (we’ll dive into this more later, promise).

  1. Non-fiction: Everything you can find on your topic. Be reasonable here. If you’re looking at World War II, that’s a LOT of reading. Whittle it down to the heart of your story and build. For example, my historical inspiration is Lucrezia Borgia, so I started with her and her family, not the Italian Renaissance.
  2. Fiction: All genres and ages that pertain to your topic. How are they done? What makes them awesome? What are YOU going to do differently?

Watch It:

All of it, the legit and the fictional. Documentaries and biographies are super informative, but look at shows and movies created solely for entertainment as well. How did they do it? Why is it so loved or hated? Feel like writing a novel about a guy at an advertising firm in the 60s? Hop on Netlflix and binge watch Mad Men. Fascinated by Mary, Queen of Scots? Time for some Reign.

The Internet:

This is last for a reason. This should never ever ever be your sole tool when researching history. But once you have a very firm grasp on your topic, it’s okay to peek around. (I personally don’t move on to this stage until I feel like I could win Jeopardy with my topic. That may sound extreme for some, but despite my extensive notes, the less I have to go back to them while the creative juices are flowing, the better. They’ll be there if I need them, but my brain is my biggest tool here.) I love Google and Wikipedia for quick fact checks, but you need to know your topic well enough to recognize when things are wrong.


 With so many moving parts and intricacies, our notes can get messy, so it’s important to stay organized and keep your notes separate.

  1. Events: Get a timeline going, and make it as detailed as you can.
  2. Clothing
  3. Music
  4. Social, religious, and political views, classes, norms, and faux pas. This is your big one. It’s going to include everything from the government system in place and the laws to how people interact with one another, and depending on how in depth you’re going, it’s probably a good idea to break these up, too. It’s especially important at this stage to remember that while we might not like what we’re learning or agree with it, we need to portray how the people from our historical eras think and feel vs. how we think and feel now.
  5. Language and word choices: Doing something from 800A.D.? Your main character probably shouldn’t be using LOL or OMG. Be careful of other accepted terms and slang from today as well. Cool = cold, not super awesome. (And you should probably stay away from phrases like ‘super awesome’ too.) Another thing to be careful with is references. We shouldn’t see Bon Jovi lyrics in a Victorian. No yellow brick road references if we’re doing something from the Middle Ages. If your characters don’t know what you’re talking about, you shouldn’t either. It’s confusing, and it’s a surefire way to take a reader out of your book.
  6. Characters: You might not think you can get a lot of information about your characters (like personalities and quirks) from an event-focused history book, but you can. It’s all about looking at the facts presented and taking a deeper look at the actions (or lack of action) and choices of these key players. This is mostly about asking yourself one question: WHY? Why did they blow up that building? Why was that law made? Why oh why did that dang chicken cross the road? Maybe it really is as simple as getting to the other side, but maybe she’s pissed these two-legged jerks keep stealing all her eggs. Events shape people (and she-chickens), ideas shape people, and people shape people. Looking at the ideas and expectations of your time period and the events and people surrounding them, you can answer a ton of character questions. After that, it’s just about naturally and logically filling in the holes.

So crack open those books, get to reading, and remember to stay organized. Research can be tedious work, but if you get the legwork done before you dive in, the creative process will be that much easier.

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